Trailing in the Past: Waddell Cunningham’s Mausoleum and the Slave Trade

In our latest blog Darcey Johnston, a first-year English and History student at Queen’s University Belfast, discusses Knockbreda Parish Church, Waddell Cunningham and Irish links to the slave trade:

Like many of us, during the first lockdown in April 2020 my house began to feel cramped. Each day became more monotonous, and I felt perplexed at how to keep myself sufficiently entertained without morphing into a fully-fledged couch potato. To combat this metamorphosis, I forced myself to take advantage of the limited, once-a-day excursions permitted from our home.

I decided to follow a local heritage trail, ‘Memories of Castlereagh’, set up in 2015 by the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The trail marks out historical locations in the area through signs, and one such sign exists outside Knockbreda Parish Church.

Knockbreda Parish Church

Historically, the building of Knockbreda Parish came at the request of the Duke of Wellington’s great grandmother, Lady Anne Middleton. The land was provided by her son Arthur Hill-Trevor, the 1st Viscount Dungannon. Consecrated in 1737, it has remained nearly identical to its original design 284 years ago.

Knockbreda Parish Church.

The parish has also served my family for generations. My parents and my maternal grandparents were married in the church, and according to my grandmother, her own great grandmother was a member of Knockbreda Parish. Although having walked through the graveyard hundreds of times, much of the church’s history has eluded me. At one point the church became a ‘fashionable’ place to be buried with some of Belfast most prominent and controversial figures. One such prominent figure being Sir Charles Lanyon, the architect of Queen’s University. Another person buried there is controversial figure Waddell Cunningham.

My grandparents’ wedding photo outside of Knockbreda Parish, 8 August 1969.
My grandparents’ outside Knockbreda on their 51st wedding anniversary, 8 August 2020.

Waddell Cunningham

Waddell Cunningham was born in 1730 in County Antrim, but he spent his youth in New York. By the mid-1750s, he had become a predominant merchant trading in items such as Irish linen, an industry that was especially successful in Belfast. Cunningham also partnered with affluent Belfast businessman Thomas Greg, who would later become Cunningham’s brother-in-law. Notably, Greg’s mausoleum is only metres away from Cunningham’s in the parish’s graveyard.

Cunningham smuggled items and used his ships to transport small clusters of enslaved people throughout the islands of the West Indies. Later, when Britain gained the Caribbean Island Dominica after the Seven Year’s War (1756 –1763), Cunningham and Greg purchased a sugar plantation on the island, which he named ‘Belfast’.[1] However, Cunningham only returned to Belfast in May 1765 after a couple of serious incidents in New York – one related to rioting landing him a short jail sentence, and then a later accusation of assault[2].

Cunningham’s Mausoleum.

Cunningham strengthened trade links within Belfast, importing ‘rum, herrings, hemp, timber, brandy, almonds, gin and chemicals for bleaching’[3]. Cunningham also became the first president of the Harbour Board and the Belfast Chamber of Commerce’s founding president. Reportedly in 1784, Cunningham attempted to gather support in setting up a Belfast company for slave trading, giving Ireland more direct involvement in trading African enslaved people abroad.[4] However, by this stage, the Abolishment Movement, which endeavoured to end slavery, had begun to gain significant momentum within Britain and Ireland, and the idea was rejected.

Despite no slave trading company developing in Belfast, Cunningham was a significantly wealthy man and his trade aided the growth of Belfast’s ports and attributed to the local economy. On the heritage sign, there is a description of a local myth that, upon Cunningham’s death, two lions were placed in his tomb for a week to prevent body snatchers. I must admit that as a local I have never heard this legend. I can also find no evidence to legitimise the claim. Still, I do question the hypothetical wisdom of leaving a fresh meaty cadaver in the protection of two starving lions.

What this legend does tell us is that Cunningham’s reputation in his community has lasted for centuries among the people of Castlereagh. Equally, anyone reading his epitaph on the mausoleum may leave impressed by Cunningham’s ‘integrity as a merchant’ and his ‘generosity as a patron’. Without the heritage sign the extent of Cunningham’s involvement in the slave trade would be omitted from public knowledge.

Cunningham’s mausoleum (far left) and Greg’s mausoleum (far right).

Black Lives Matter and the ‘Irish Myth’

In April 2020, when I was on the heritage trail, I could have never foreseen the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder that May and the social media surge of support for the Black Live Matter campaign. Around this time, there was a resurfacing and sharing of old memes on the ‘Irish Slave’ myth on social media platforms, promoting the pseudohistorical view that a large proportion of Irish were similarly sold as slaves.

While there were Irish migrants who laboured in terrible conditions as ‘indentured servants’ in America, there was a clear legal distinction between servants and enslaved people.[5] Africans were deemed as ‘lesser’ beings under a racial ideology predicated by the colonial slave trade. The Irish have historically suffered under British colonialism but, as journalist Rory Carroll states, the ‘notion of Irish slaves is disinformation spread online by white supremacists […] to puncture black people’s anger over slavery,’ and derails the message over current systemic racism that is prevalent in our contemporary society. [6] 

Information on Cunningham on ‘Memories of Castlereagh’ sign. The picture, however, shows Thomas Greg’s mausoleum.

What we can learn from historical figures like Cunningham is that although Ireland had little direct involvement in the slave trade, there were numerous Irish merchants and other wealthy Irish families who did profit from these slave-fuelled plantations. It is the lack of awareness of the Irish involvement in the slave trade within mainstream public history that is why more local heritage trails and historical events are needed to educate the public and prevent the likes of memes being used to spread potentially harmful historical misinformation.

The Future of Heritage

If you follow the ‘Memories of Castlereagh’ there are suggestions on the signs for a more interactive experience; a QR code that links to a website, a pdf to download, and even an app. However, nearly six years on from the trail’s establishment the website page is not available, the pdf is nowhere online, and the app is no longer found on appstores. It seems that these signs are all that remain.

Although the council has other heritage projects running, I believe these kinds of trails are extremely beneficial. Heritage trails are not only for tourists, but they are also invaluable for educating communities through encouraging engagement in local history. In my case, my family and I would have remained ignorant to the connection between our local church and a plantation in the Caribbean.

I can only hope that these signs are maintained, or that the project may be revamped by the council in some way. I fear that if the signs disappear so might Cunningham’s reputation as a slave trader, and for future generations of Knockbreda Parish this piece of our past might be forgotten.


[1] Bill Rolston, ‘“A lying old scoundrel”: Waddell Cunningham & Belfast’s role in the slave trade’. History Ireland, XI, (2003). p 26.

[2] Nini Rodgers, Ireland, slavery and anti-slavery: 1612-1865. (Basingstoke, 2007). p 148.

[3] Bill Rolston, ‘“A lying old scoundrel”’. p 26.

[4] Ibid, p. 27.

[5] Liam Stack, ‘Debunking a myth: the Irish were not slaves, too’. The New York Times (2017) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/17/us/irish-slaves-myth.html) (Accessed 27 May 2021).

[6] Rory Carroll, ‘Trinity College reckons with slavery links as Ireland confronts collusion with empire’. The Guardian (2021) (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/07/trinity-college-reckons-with-slavery-links-as-ireland-confronts-collusion-with-empire) (Accessed 14 Mar. 2021).

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